Equilibrium? Royden Rabinowitch at the GTG Project room, 09/01/2014 – 25/01/2014

Equilibrium poster

The drawing  above carries the instruction for the sculpture that appears in this exhibition.

Organised in partnership with Politics Plus (www.politicsplus.com, launched on February 2oth, 2013) it aims at an elusive instrumental value of art while focusing on one work of art, Greased Cone, 1965 by Royden Rabinowitch (b 1943).

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Project Space. Standing on the left Professor Ch-M Lerm Hayes

Whenever art has served a political aim it stayed locked in that domain. The Western Church developed a particular virtuosity in exploiting art’s power over the senses, only followed by more pedestrian and damaging, yet equally powerful,  political leaders like Stalin (Zdanov), Mao and Hitler, inter alia.  On its own, the arts could not wield that power so completely and en mass, nevertheless the ‘meddling’ of arts in an ideal republic has been recognised as conditio sine qua non  already by Plato.  No wonder then, if even today the instrumental value of art is a  topic for discussion.

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from the right: Sandra Johnston, Alastair MacLennan, Rainer Pagel, Professor Lerm Hayes…

The curator maps lightly the expected impact of art on the viewers in a kind of give and take: they give attention and sensitivity, art provides some force for a change of habitual thought “…which might just also bring with it a higher chance of peace and (even monetary) wellbeing: obliquely”. (the handout, end of paragraph 1)

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Installation shot of both sculptural parts

During the late 1990s Sara Sellwood made a seminal research into the matter  and in a paper I read then ( and failed to locate it now, however, she lists a related work as a book on her website http://saraselwood.co.uk), she  concluded that there is no evidence that art can bring about such a change . The last issue of the journal  Cultural Trends carries a claim that there is “…not yet a rigorous evidence  of the impact of art on audiences”, only more nuanced attempts to understand the various constructs in use and work out the methods for measuring of the intrinsic value of arts. (Alan S. Brown, Jennifer L Novak-Leonard, Measuring the intrinsic impacts of arts attendance, in Cultural Trends, Vol 22, Issue 3-4, 2013:223-233).

Rabinowitch  cannot be  unaware of  a small number  of artists sending drawings and instruction to galleries, who then “make” the work of art, e.g. Lawrence Weiner, Gary Shaw…). He gave a diagram dated 1965 to the curator to follow,  he did not give the sculpture.  The Greased Cone  was made in 2013 in Lurgan, commissioned by the Golden Thread  Gallery, I am told.  On the contribution of that anonymous quango, politicsplus, the curator’s text is silent.

The exhibition includes two drawings on the wall. Apology, for not having full evidence.

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sorry, no full view!!!

The other addition is a glass display box with more or less relevant items( e.g. poster for J Beuys talk at the Ulster Museum in 1974, ie nine years after the date of the drawing -raises a question of relevance to whom, to what ? It is certainly relevant to the curator’s research   and as an oblique indication  of the two artists at least twice exhibiting together: once in  1982 in Lodz, and around that time I saw their work in Frankfurt am Main).

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Professor Christa-Maria Lerm Hayes and Rainer Pagel.

Supporting material, books and papers were displayed on the window sills for browsing.

Art coverage is often couched  in a cosy assertion that everything an artist does makes the world a better place. The closing paragraph of the curator’s text offers a  two way process:

“When exercising on Royden Rabinowitch’s work our capacity to be sensitive, we will all see something conditioned by our own experience and knowledge.”  

That is by something from the past.  Yet, downward causation is not possible.  Taking Karl Popper as a guide (1902-1994, namely The Tanner Lecture on Human Values given at the University of Michigan in 1978) a work of art exists in all three Worlds: W1  holds it as physical objects or events or biological entities; W2 embraces it as mental object or event; and W3 is the holder of the intrinsic  value, of autonomous products of thought.  The play of the exchange between the three worlds is not explicit, but happens in real terms. The current neuroscience armored with MRI, PET etc. supports the philosophy.

The link to the sense of our individual identity is indisputable, moreover, there are now numerous reports  from neuroscience that can measure how brain responds to art. I single out the conclusion offered by Edward Wessel at  New York University Center for Brain Imagining: …”when we encounter art that resonates with our sense of Self” then art is allowed  to interact with neural processes related to the Self, affect them and possibly even be incorporated into them. The condition for the resonance is a match between the work of art and the perceiving individual’s make up. If so, then art obtains access to the neural substrates concerned with self, access which other stimuli fail to get.

The process depends on some sameness that contains some difference. A paradox if there was one?! Not quite, neither of the two is absolute and static,  there is a necessary slippage between the two  both in aesthetic experience and  cognitive process (e.g V Shklovsky, On dissimilarities of the similar. or Jan Mukarovsky on the transparency of aesthetic function)

The ways in which a particular artwork forms a match with our personal identity remain mysterious. But this discovery does explain why so many established artists have fans who worship them, while other, equally sophisticated people can take or leave their work.

In 2009 an overview of Royden Rabinowitch’s oeuvre at Marta Herford Gallery included also sculptures and drawings  from the 1960s,  Greased Cone did not appear.  The artist is cited as characterising his art as “choreography for the eyes and the body”. This is of interest in relation to his claim that his subject matter is “the contradiction between knowing and experience” and the simple look, something easily recognisable that disintegrates when observed and reflected upon.

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The steel inside the volume keeps the cone from levitation, the heavy industrial grease, the curator applied with a brush, denies all chances of one smooth surface. In comparison, the cone insists on hand involvement, and not the precision of a machine aesthetics. In turn it denies what is not visible but without which it would not keep upright: the machine  made steel inside. This lens based observation creates an illusion of the cone taking off. The dust on the floor, the traces of shoe imprints, dematerialise the floor around the sculpture’s base.

On the other hand – the cone flirts with anthropocentrism: it is 6 ft high – a height of a human being.

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the man’s figure is wider at the level where the cone narrows up to its sharp end as if to balance the cone into a symmetrical whole

Rabinowich protects his art by claims of their independence from a list of  social phenomena. Every time he said the word independence I substituted it with autonomous. Without doubt he meant independent, as in independence from the need of the public.  In addition, as Picasso wisely advised: artist’s utterance do not matter, the work of art does.

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This particular work of art is an orphan. In an embryonic state of a drawing  it was sent away to become a part of the World of objects elsewhere. The drawing was made without knowledge of the future site, consequently, the idea, if not its dimension, was deliberately vague, ready to respond to unforeseen circumstances.  It is adaptable art, it does not insist on the aura of the authorship, Rabinowich had not seen/ approved  the result of the curator painting the surface in situ. This deliberate emptiness is, of course, the legacy of both abstraction and minimalism. In his seminal essay Specific Object(1965) Donald Judd works with the characteristics of the new art: three- dimensional space is more powerful than illusion of space; the object as a whole, its quality as a whole is interesting; the shape, colour, surface, material are single entity.  It was the dominant thinking about art – no doubt accessible to Rabinowich -in the year of the drawing with instructions for the Greased Cone.  Among  the notes on materials to be used  another aspect of that new art is burried: juxtaposition of hard and soft. Rabinowich construction is of steel, the surface of softer grease. At the exhibition in Frankfurt, I fleetingly  mentioned above, was also the work by Lee Ufan (spelled then Lee-U-Fan), who already then  focused on the contrasting materials next to each other. Here is a later sculpture from the Relatum Series exhibited at Guggenheim,NY, 2011.

Lee UFAN Relatum

Isamu  Noguchi has also entertain this idea rather beautifully during the 1940s:


These artists refused to posit rule of reason over emotion and feeling,  perhaps, in search, like Judd, of new art. An attitude that guides art today as well. The  cello virtuoso  Yo Yo Ma terms it  “integrative awareness”  – one that takes both reason and empathy  into account. By hiding the rational construction under the painted surface, Rabinowich took account of both, but unlike Ufan or Noguchi or Judd abandoned the more interesting/significant choice. In the daylight the Greased Cone of 1965/2013 looked spiritless.

23/Jan 2013

About Slavka Sverakova

writer on art
This entry was posted in essay, review and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Equilibrium? Royden Rabinowitch at the GTG Project room, 09/01/2014 – 25/01/2014

  1. Rainer says:

    Hi Slavka, I think it is wonderful that you happened to post this on he day that Newtownabbey Council decided to ban a theatre play to protect its Christian citizens…


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